Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 25

 
 

XXV.

 

SIX WEEKS IN SOUTHERN MEXICO.

 

THE principal town of a broad and fertile valley running-down from Puebla is Tehuacan de las Granadas, noted for the abundance of its grapes and pomegranates. Before the Spaniards conquered Mexico it was one of the most cherished and frequented sanctuaries of the Mexicans, and known as Teohuacan, or dwelling-place of the Miztec gods. Its houses are of stone, in the Spanish style, with grated windows and open courts; its suburbs are pretty gardens surrounded by green fields of alfalfa traversed by vine-bordered lanes. Above the town, a league or so away to the east, is a range of hills, the Cerro Colorado, famous in revolutionary annals as having been held by General Teran, an insurgent chief, for three or four years; a congress, even, was appointed here, and a commission charged by the United States to inquire into the causes of the revolution of 1810, here held interview with that body.

A diligence runs to Puebla daily, but with little patronage, as a narrow-gauge tramway, a government venture, extends south from Esperanza on the Mexican Railway. This tramway is well built and economically managed; the cars are drawn by mules, and connect with the up and down trains of the road from coast to capital. Nearly all the railway lines of Mexico are mainly north of the capital, connecting it with the United States, though in very truth the government is now most anxious to extend its system southward. But no American was found bold enough to undertake such a venture, requiring vast capital and consummate engineering skill for its development, until the right man appeared, finally, in the person of our great and highly-honored Ex-President, General Grant. He has engaged to continue the Mexican system southward to Tehuantepec, even perhaps to Guatemala, and beyond, to South America.

It was to investigate the resources of the region to be traversed by the "Mexican Southern" railroad, that my companions and myself undertook a trip, horseback and muleback, that extended eventually over a thousand miles, and through the most fertile portions of the great State of Oaxaca.

It was a Sunday on which we arrived at Tehuacan, and everybody was astir; for a bull-fight was in progress, most of the stores were closed in consequence, and the sermons of the conscientious priests held over till evening. So we stopped for the night at the Hotel Ferrocarril, and there commenced a preliminary skirmish with fleas, that was kept up, with more or less loss of blood on either side, for a month. The next morning, which was clear, cold, and starlit, we sallied forth from the hotel, lighted into the diligence by flaming torches of tarred rope. Daylight showed us a dry, almost barren plain, descending rapidly in the direction we were going, with haciendas and villages in sight far away under the hills. We changed mules, putting on eight fresh animals, at the hacienda of Nopala, and got breakfast, towards noon, at a town of two houses, called Venta Salada. We encountered great crowds of Indians here, all going to work. We met them all day, intent on the same mission—of going to work,—but which they never seemed to reach. In fact, there did not seem to be any to do; no fields to cultivate,—at least within our vision,—and no wood to cut, or charcoal to burn. The road was all the way descending, and most horrible to travel, the coach first on end, then on its side. The whip, with its twenty feet of lash, trailed at the side like a great snake, which now and again leaped forth and stung the mules to active effort. Hills and valleys were covered with thorny acacias and cacti, and no other vegetation occurred for the trip, except where a rare brook was found, or a small canal led the water to a narrow valley. About noon of that hot and stifling day we passed a great stone post that marked the limits of the State of Oaxaca, and entered the town of San Antonio Nanahuantepec, which had nothing in it so alarming as its name. Here occurred a great fight between Porfirio Diaz and the French, in 1863, in which Diaz was badly whipped. The village, a few adobe huts with thatched roofs, seems to have suffered severely, the walls of some old buildings being well peppered with bullet-holes. We were reminded that we were in the earthquake region by the church bell being housed beneath a thatched tower by the side of the building. The vegetation here is tropical; narrow lanes run between banks of vines and bananas, and there is an immense field of sugar-cane in the valley below. Under the hills in the distance was pointed out to us

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HEDGES OF CACTUS.

the town of Teotitlan del Camino, where, some twenty years ago, the Liberal General Mexia (whom we met in Tehuacan, a fine old gentleman) was defeated by the clerical party. This section fairly bristles with revolutionary points. It would seem that the people wished to utilize its worthless territory somehow, and so put up a fight at every available place. To reflect how the Mexicans have stamped over this desert region, for the express purpose of killing one another and kicking one another out, reminds one of the man who fenced in a stony piece of ground,—so that his cattle should not get in and starve to death. After a mile or two through cultivated fields, we again took to the hills, and jolted up and down through the same eternal stretches of cactus. These were of every shape and variety, chiefly of the Candelabrum species, some of them full thirty feet in diameter. The very expressive name of this cactus is organo, or the organ, since it grows straight up with fluted, hexagonal columns, and when many of them are together has a faint resemblance to an organ with its pipes. Hedges are made of them which are very durable and easily induced to thrive. The cacti are not wholly worthless, as jackasses feed on them when in straits for food. Certain species bear edible fruit, and mules and donkeys find within them reservoirs of water, and even the goat will not hesitate to exchange for them his favorite fodder.

The only hacienda after San Antonio was Ayotla, a small one, some four leagues distant. After this we passed San Juan de los Cues, four leagues from the end of the diligence route, where is a collection of huts and the finest trees we saw anywhere. This place is in a pass between high cliffs, and takes its name from some artificial mounds, one of which is very prominent on the right of the pass. Beyond this we drove down the river basin, crossing a broad stream several times, and drove into Techomavaca at five, having been fourteen hours in the diligence, through a hot, weary day. Techomavaca may be taken as a type of a Mexican country village, built out of raw material, straw and mud, in the form of a square; the latter, indeed, is about all there is; it comprises nine tenths of the town, with a narrow rim of houses and huts. It must have been a Mexican general who, commanding a force of one man, told him to form himself into a hollow square, for that is the aim and end of all builders in this country. Techomavaca, says an old writer, is an Hispano-Indian word, meaning, "The cow will eat thee." We found here four horses and a mule, which had been telegraphed for to Oaxaca, and sent up to meet us. They were very small and scraggy, but tough and lively, and we mounted them at five, sharp, the next morning.

Leaving the town, we bade adieu to all refreshing vegetation, and, after crossing a broad river with several channels, entered a landscape similar to that of the day before,—red sandstone hills, yielding nothing but cacti and nopals. There was some grand scenery as we reached the Rio Grande, where cliffs, three hundred feet high, towered above our heads. It grew hot as the sun got up and had a square look at us, and the dry landscape of rocks and cacti seemed to sizzle in the heat. At a small hut we got a drink of mescal and some tortillas, and a league farther on passed three other shanties with native rum, or licor del pais, for sale.

Toward midday a great field of sugar-cane enlivened the scenery, occupying a narrow valley made fertile by irrigation, and after that appeared the large sugar-works of the estate of Guendolain, with coco and fruit trees grouped about them. The hospitable proprietor invited us to take breakfast with him, for he was a Mexican, and consequently generous to a stranger. This hacienda occupies the best portion of the only cultivable land in this region. It is the lowest point reached on the trail, and so hot that the people say they would rather pass through purgatory than through the vale of Guendolain.

The afternoon was passed in threading the same bad roads, and narrow, gullied trails, and at its close we reached the town of Dominguillo, the largest between Tehuacan and Oaxaca, and containing less than fifty families, housed for the most part in bamboo huts. There was a meson here, or house for the entertainment of man and beast. The rooms all opened into a corridor, with rarely a single window, and contained each two hard board beds, a chair perhaps, and an abundance of fleas. An amateur bull-fight was in progress when we arrived, and all the inhabitants were indulging in a fiesta, in honor of some saint. A small cattle-pen was turned into a bull-ring, and a calf was let loose to be tormented by the boys with sticks and sarapes. Later on, a bull was driven in, girths fastened about him, and a man mounted on his back. The assembled men then goaded him, and he fought them fiercely, trying at the same time to get rid of his burden. Finally, becoming frightened, the bull bolted for the bars, and got half-way through, but the men pulled him back and incited him to fresh charges. When his spirits failed, they resorted to a novel expedient. A man bit his tail! It had the required effect,—the bull let fly a kick that sickened that unhappy man, dashed at the bars again, and escaped.

Crowds of dirty women surrounded the fences, and a dozen drunken musicians drew doleful strains from battered instruments. Now and then, some ragged boy set off a rocket,—the Mexicans always send off their fireworks by daylight,—and everybody was industriously engaged in getting drunk. They lay outside all night in stupid inebriety, all—as one of them told us—"for the glory of God!" and we passed them next morning as we set off at daylight. There was an elevated platform, with seats for the élite and fashion,—a dozen or so of Indian ladies, who, we could not fail to notice, wore no stockings, though they spread most gorgeous sunshades.

Half the day previous we had seen a white line drawn across these red hills, which was the road we reached that morning. It seemed interminable, for it climbed from hill to hill, turning and twisting, but ever ascending. Large gangs of Indians were at work trying to render the roads passable for a carriage for General Diaz, who was soon to be installed Governor of Oaxaca. As such a vehicle had never yet passed over those roads, it was anticipated that the noble General would experience a lively jolting. As we reached somewhere near the summit of the higher ridge, after long hours of toil, we had behind us a last view of Orizaba, its cone of snow rising above the mountains and over the long interval of hills and valleys. It is a speaking commentary upon the necessarily tortuous roads of this mountainous country, that this volcano should still be in sight after three days' travel.

Four leagues from Dominguillo we reached a pass in the hills, locally celebrated as the spot where an untutored Indian, with a handful of men to help him, kept at bay three thousand French troops, by mounting a few cannon at a point that swept the road. High above the trail rise the stupendous cliffs, backed by high hills that prevent a road from being made in any other place. After taking breakfast, in a small Indian hut; of tortillas, frijoles, and mescal, eaten off the dirty floor, we ascended yet steeper hills for some miles, and reached Salomen, a group of huts in the centre of grassy slopes and oak-covered hills. As the hot, dry country is changed into the warm and moist, the ungainly cacti gradually merge into beautiful palms, and the landscape is charming. After three days and a half of cactus-covered hills, the sight of trees and grass was very inviting. The country had completely changed, and we galloped through extensive oak woods for many a league, with noble views of an ocean of hills, along the ridges of which we picked our way, to a place called Carbonera, containing solely a house of dried mud and a cow-yard. An Indian girl was asleep on the mud floor, with a naked baby, and her we roused, and begged to get us ready something to eat. After cooking some eggs, frying over some frijoles, and warming up some cold tortillas, she washed, with the same water the eggs were to be boiled in, some coarse earthen dishes and her hands at the same time, and then, spreading the repast upon the floor, stretched herself out in her corner and snored, while we fell to eating, like hungry men, as we were. One of our tired and exhausted carga mules here had the blind staggers, and one of our horses went lame.

Leaving this place, we galloped down the hills into the valley of Etla, reaching a place called Huitzo at dark, just before a thunder-storm broke over the hills. We were now in the territory of the Miztec Indians, inveterate enemies of the Aztecs in olden times, whom they always slew at sight, when they could. The town is situated at the head of the valley, which, as we went southward next morning, we found to increase in area and fertility. Half-way down, it is crossed by a line of artificial hills, one group of which, known as Los Cerritos de la Peña, we visited. These were at least a dozen in number, conical, oval, and quadrilateral, within an area of a few acres. We examined them carefully, but found nothing beyond a few shards of pottery; no implements even, though ornaments of gold, silver, and bronze have been discovered here. They lie near the town of Etla, on the eastern foot-hills, near which the golden throne of the last Miztecan king is said to be buried. Two great tribes of Indians occupied this valley in former years, the Zapotecs and Miztecs,

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GOVERNOR'S PALACE, OAXACA.

who fought a terrible battle near this spot, in which the latter were beaten. A curious fact was brought to our notice here,—that, while at Huitzo the people speak the Miztec language, in Etla, only four leagues distant, they speak the Zapotec.

Bidding adieu to our courteous guide, Don Jesus Filio, we reached, after hard riding along magnificent fields of corn, through which the Etla River runs, the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, where we found Don José, our compañero, an ex-colonel of artillery, awaiting our arrival at a cross-road, whence he escorted us to the Plaza and to the Hotel Nacional. There we footed up our first week's journey and found that in five days' diligent travel we had accomplished but two hundred and twenty miles, divided as follows: by tramway, first day, thirty miles; by diligence, second day, sixty miles; by horseback, third, fourth, and fifth days, one hundred and thirty miles.

Guaxaca (Oaxaca, pronounced Wahháka), says a writer of nearly three hundred years ago, "is a Bishop's Seat, not very big, yet a fair and beautiful City to behold, which standeth threescore leagues from Mexico in a pleasant Valley." The seat of this ancient bishopric is a triple vale, a trefoil in shape, with the capital city, Oaxaca, at the stem. From the north leads in the valley of Etla, with its broad river meandering through a billowy sea of corn-fields. This river turns south as it reaches the city and runs towards the Pacific, through the valley of Ejutla, while the third vale, known as Tlacolula, trends westward. Whichever way the eye may wander, the view is bounded by hills. The city itself is built at the foot of a hill, as it slopes to the river, a broad, flat-roofed plain of stone buildings, above which, every few squares, are thrust up domes and towers, of cathedral, churches, and convents, with the various plazas indicated by dark-green masses of trees.

Each valley is about twenty miles in length and from two to four miles broad, and from the sterile hills that enclose them to the lowest depression of the basin the soil gradually increases in fertility. This valley, or conjunction of valleys, if not the objective point of the Mexican Southern Railway, is at least the most important on the line. It is the centre of the State, contains the richest land and largest sugar plantations, and its city is the most considerable south of Puebla and the capital. The valleys, all of them, present a delightful blending of the vegetation and productions of different regions, for the high altitude of the upper lands (5,000 feet) combines with the almost tropical climate in such a manner that the TLM D532 Coffee plant.jpgCOFFEE. fruits of every zone may be gathered here,—cotton in the southern borders, alfalfa, arnatto, rice, sweet potatoes, cacao, sugarcane, beans, pulse, maguey, corn, potatoes, wheat, vanilla, pecans, almonds, oranges, coffee,—in fact, there is little doubt that the whole list of tropic, of semi-tropic, and of temperate fruits and vegetables may be well represented between the southern and northern valleys. It is claimed that the hills are covered with valuable woods, such as mahogany, cedar, rosewood, royal palm, and an infinite number of plants valuable to the materia medica. But though all these trees may have been indigenous here, most of them have long since been cut down and destroyed; for in above one thousand miles of wanderings we did not see any extensive forests of valuable timber or cabinet woods.

From the hills immediately above the city of Oaxaca one looks down upon as fair a scene as he could wish,—upon smooth and verdant fields of cane and corn, dotted with white stone haciendas and with Indian hamlets springing up at the base of every hill. About the villages and the buildings of the sugar estates are trees, and across the valley of Tlacolula a line of giants stretches from hill to hill; but, except among the distant sierras, you cannot see any not planted by the hand of man; there are few natural groves or forests. This scarcity of trees is doubtless owing to the fact that this region has been inhabited almost from time immemorial. To this, again, we may trace the thorough cultivation of Southern Mexico. There is not a valley, vale, or hill that is not or has not been cultivated, wherever there is a chance to scrape with a hoe, or prod with a sharpened stick. The more level stretches, the great basins filled with alluvium, are owned by rich hacendados, or landowners, and the Indians are forced toward the outskirts, where the hills lap over into the valleys, and thence they carry their little gardens and fields of corn up toward the crests. Not a foot is left untilled; not a rod of those brown, denuded hills covered with a few inches of soil that is not occupied.

It was an agricultural race that the Spaniards found in possession of Mexico,—a people that had held and tilled the soil for hundreds of years before the white man heard of the New World,—not a savage horde that subsisted by the chase. As a consequence, we find every portion of this southern republic susceptible to the influences of the hoe and plough carefully and exhaustively cultivated. One may ride through leagues of territory, with an Indian settlement only at long intervals, and wonder at the thriving appearance of the fertile fields, in decided contrast to the parched and barren hills. Two things seem strange: first, where the people are who till these fields so thoroughly; and, secondly, how they can cover so much territory by day and occupy so little space by night. It is only when an immigration agent comes along, or some one desiring to secure property, that one obtains a conception of how closely human beings can stow themselves. A village of one hundred Indian huts may contain two thousand people. And no one of these huts would be considered worthy of use as a donkey-shed in the North. But let it be noised through their town that there is any movement on foot for introducing immigrants into that

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GENERAL MARKET, OAXACA.

section, and the Indians will pour out of those huts like a swarm of angry bees out of a hive. It will seem as though there was at least one Indian for every square foot of territory. These are the objections to Oaxaca, and to all Mexico, as a residence for immigrants: first, every available rod of soil is owned and worked; secondly, it is too far from any great centre for an outlet for productions; thirdly, they must compete with Indians, with whom a pair of trousers is an unheard of luxury, who sleep on the ground, eat from a gourd, and work for twenty-five cents a day.

From the earliest times, Oaxaca has been looked upon as El Dorado, the traditional land of gold. The chief tribute to Montezuma came from the sands of its rivers, and the Spaniards were told that the unconquered Indians living there guarded vast and unknown treasures. But this was in the time of Cortés, when the conquerors were sending out in every direction for gold. Believing it to be what it was described to him, Cortés arrogated to himself the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, and the faith in its riches has been maintained, though without sufficient reason, to the present day. In the catalogue of its natural wealth are included silver, gold, copper, lead, iron, slate, and coal, and perhaps quicksilver and precious stones. We met here several very intelligent gentlemen who owned mines of both gold and silver, and I take pleasure in here recording our indebtedness to Señores Romero and Endner, of the Oaxaca mint, and Don Constantino Rickards, a most generous and hospitable Englishman, who has lived in the country thirty years, and possesses valuable mineral property.

Antequera, the Beautiful, was the ancient name of the capital, now known as Oaxaca of Juarez. It contains twenty-six thousand seven hundred inhabitants, of which number, judging from the proportion seen at church and in the streets, more than twenty thousand are Indians. Like every city in Spanish America, it has its plaza, or central square, adorned with a fountain and shaded by trees, with seats for the people and a music-stand for the military band. Facing the plaza is the cathedral, with its façade guarded by many saints, disposed in niches, some of whom have been sorely shaken by earthquakes, that were once the scourge of this city, and may be the cause of the air of general decay, or rather of restoration, that pervades the place. There is scarcely a block that has not an unfinished building in it; and as to the streets, they seem to be maintaining a perpetual and running fight with the streams that plough them on their way down from the hills. Aside from deep gutters that cross the main thoroughfares, heaps of filth and refuse obstruct the way, making the city, as it appeals to at least two senses, the sight and smell, more objectionable even than the city of Mexico. The houses are low and massive, of the style of architecture that prevails in all Spanish cities in Mexico, with walls of stone and grated windows. In situation, the city is superb, commanding the three grand and glorious valleys; and perhaps, under the administration of General Diaz, it may attain to the acme of healthfulness and beauty which its situation, five thousand feet above the sea, and its climate, should give it.

The place most sought by us when in the city was the plaza in front of the municipal palace, which, on Saturdays, was the resort of the various Indian tribes living among the hills, who came in and took undisputed possession of it and the adjacent portales. The Mexican market-place has been described by me in previous chapters, but I cannot refrain from again alluding to the portales, which usually surround it. If there were any that surpassed those of Oaxaca in length and symmetry, I think those of Yucatan are entitled to honorable mention. Beneath these arcades the affairs of the huckster and small dealer are generally carried on in the morning; at noon their shade tempts the town vagabond to slumber there, and at night they afford a lurking place for the evil-minded lepero.

The most famous building here of recent times is the Institute of Oaxaca, in which college were educated Diaz, Romero, Juarez, Mariscal, and many other Mexicans who have had a widely extended reputation. It exercises its beneficial influence over five hundred students, and the natural result of it is shown by an enumeration in the city alone of over seventy lawyers and seventeen doctors. In the library of the Institute are fourteen thousand volumes, some of note and rarity, principally the spoils of the suppressed conventual establishments of the State, The favored students wander about cool corridors, and in a neat little garden in the patio, where are several objects of Indian antiquity, a harpy eagle, and brilliant macaws, which lend an added interest to this spot, made sacred to Mexican youth by its association with the names of their famous countrymen previously mentioned.

The chief of our expedition was provided with letters to all the principal men of Oaxaca, and while awaiting permission from the authorities to visit the Indians of the sierras, we made a side trip into the valley of Ejutla, southward. After examining the little known ruins of Monte Alban, and visiting an old convent, where the patriot Guerrero was shot, in 1831, we ended our journey in this direction at the town of Cuilapan, formerly a great city of the Miztecs, and containing a large adobe mound, in which copper axes, mirrors, and golden ornaments have been found. Even now, the inhabitants of this place speak the Miztec tongue, while at Zaachila, a near town, the Zapotec is spoken, and farther up the valley, nearer Oaxaca, is a small colony of Indians whose language is the Aztec. This little body of aliens, sandwiched in between Zapotecs and Miztecs, is doubtless a relic of the great Mexican invasion of the fifteenth century, when the armies of Montezuma, after penetrating as far south as Tehuantepec, were driven back by the allied kings of the country. So rich was this valley at the time of the Spanish invasion that the soldiers of Alvarado had the natives make for them spurs of solid gold, which were worked with great skill.

Many are the stories told here of those early times, so numerous that half a volume might be filled with them, and so fascinating that I reluctantly pass them by. But we will leave antiquities and traditions for a while, and glance at an ancient industry, which, originating here, has made this region famous the world over. In this same village of Cuilapan we found ourselves in the original home of the cochineal, where, enclosed by hedges of the organo, were little gardens of the nopal, or cochineal cactus. The anciently used kermes, or "scarlet grain," was replaced by the cochineal insect, which furnished the brilliant dyes, crimson and scarlet, after the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. This precious dye—more valuable once than at the present day—is obtained from the dried bodies of the female cochineal (Coccus cacti), which feeds on the leaves of the Opuntia cochinillifera, and other cacti closely allied to the prickly-pears, and called nopals and tunas. The insect is so small that it is calculated that it takes above seventy thousand in the dried state to make a pound. It always remains attached to the spot at which it was hatched, and its body grows rapidly as it absorbs the juice of the cactus, until legs, antennæ, and proboscis can hardly be distinguished by the naked eye. The female, which alone produces the dye, is detached from the leaf just prior to the escape of the young from the egg, when she contains the greatest amount of coloring matter, and killed by being plunged into boiling water, or placed with heaps of others in hot ovens.

Since the discovery of aniline dyes cochineal has steadily fallen away in value, until now it hardly pays even the Indian to raise it. It is now worth but ten dollars the arroba, but formerly brought one hundred dollars, when immense fortunes resulted from its cultivation. The Indians affirm that Oaxaca was the original habitat of the cochineal, whence it was taken to Guatemala and the Canaries.

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